iPad, Nook, Tab or Fire? A field guide for first-time tablet shoppersSo, you’re finally ready to take the leap and buy a tablet, but what kind of tablet? A big one like the iPad, or one of those smaller, mid-size Android tablets? And what about e-readers like the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook—do they count?

Well, I happen to have four—count ’em—four tablets sitting on my dining room tablet at the moment, and they pretty much run the gamut, ranging from a pricey, full-size iPad 2 to one of the cheapest e-readers you can get.

Instead of burying you with details on every last tablet on the market, I’m going to give you a bird’s-eye view of the entire tablet landscape, from the best-selling iPad to the new (and bargain-priced) Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet.

So, which kind of tablet might be right for you—or for that special someone on your holiday shopping list? Let’s get started with…

Full-size, 8- to 10-inch tablet

Makes and models include:
Apple iPad 2, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, Motorola Xoom, T-Mobile G-Slate

iPad, Nook, Tab or Fire? A field guide for first-time tablet shoppers

The $499 (and up) iPad 2, with its 9.7-inch LCD display.

What it does:
A little of everything: surf the web, checks email, manages calendars and contacts, plays videos and music, edits documents, handles video chat, plays games. Might even replace your laptop, as long as you don’t mind working with a touchscreen keyboard.

Weighs about:
A pound and a half, give or take

Feels like:
A thick magazine

Features to look for:
Dual-core processors (meaning two processors on a single chip) for peppy performance; dual cameras, including one in front for video chat; microphone; memory card slot (Android tablets only); GPS; 3G or 4G wireless support

Number of apps:
Hundreds of thousands, either from the Apple App Store or the Android Market

How much:
$500 and up (or less with a two-year contract through a wireless carrier)

What’s great about them:
Big, roomy display, just the ticket for surfing the web and watching movies or TV shows; growing selection of tablet-formatted magazines and newspapers, complete with slideshows, videos, and other interactive goodies; on-screen keyboards that are almost as large as real ones; powerful work and productivity apps; all-day battery life

What’s not so great about them:
Expensive; way too large for a pocket, or even some purses; can be tiring to hold in a single hand; difficult to use outside due to glare-prone LCD displays; require daily charging, depending on how heavily you use them

Perfect for:
Movie lovers, magazine subscribers, news junkies, on-the-go corporate users who want to check email or do some light document editing on the road; anyone who enjoys surfing the web from their sofa

Premium seven-inch tablet

Makes and models include:
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, BlackBerry Playbook, HTC Evo View 4G

iPad, Nook, Tab or Fire? A field guide for first-time tablet shoppers

The $400 Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus: small, but powerful.

What it does:
Just about anything a full-size tablet can do, including surfing the web, handling calendars and contacts, doing video chat, playing games, you name it. That said, the smaller screen on a mid-size tablet will make laptop-style activities like email and document editing that much more difficult.

Weighs about:
12 to 15 ounces

Feels like:
A mid-size paperback book

Features to look for:
Dual-core processors; dual cameras, including one in front for video chat; microphone; memory card slot (Android tablets only); GPS; 3G or 4G wireless support

Number of apps:
Hundreds of thousands, in the case of Android tablets; a few thousand for the BlackBerry Playbook

How much:
$400 and up (or less with a two-year contract)

What’s great about them:
You get most of the benefits of a full-size tablet, but in a palm-sized package; small enough to fit in a purse, or perhaps even the inside pocket of a blazer

What’s not so great about them:
Expensive; smaller on-screen keyboards that’ll cramp your style when it comes to email or productivity; less battery life than a full-size tablet (think seven hours rather than nine, on average); same sunlight-averse LCD displays as larger tablets

Perfect for:
Mobile mavens who’d rather not juggle a full-on, magazine-sized device

Budget seven-inch tablet

Makes and models include:
Amazon Kindle Fire, Barnes & Noble Nook Color and Nook Tablet

iPad, Nook, Tab or Fire? A field guide for first-time tablet shoppers

The $200 Kindle Fire: great for books, magazines, and videos, but weak when it comes to productivity

What it does:
Lets you shop for and read books, newspapers, and tablet-formatted, full-color magazines; plays videos and music; plays games; surfs the web and checks email

Weights about:
14 ounces, or a little heavier than a premium seven-inch tablet

Feels like:
A mid-size paperback book, albeit one that’s somewhat thick and heavy

Features to look for:
Access to an online book and magazine store (the Kindle Store in the case of Amazon, or the Nook store for Barnes & Noble); streaming video and music players; dual-core processors

Number of apps:
A few thousand, with no access to the larger Apple or Google app stores

How much:
$200 to $250

What’s great about them:
Very cheap compared to premium tablets; designed to make life easy for book and magazine shoppers; emphasis on video, music, games, and other entertainment

What’s not so great about them:
No built-in cameras means no video chat; no GPS for using location-based apps like Yelp; no 3G, meaning you’ll need a nearby Wi-Fi network to go online; needs a daily battery charge, depending on use; limited access to business-minded productivity apps; LCD screen that’s hard to read outdoors; no access to Google’s massive Android Market for apps

Perfect for:
Bookworms, magazine readers, and movie lovers interested in a multimedia tablet that won’t break the bank

Dedicated e-reader

Makes and models include:
Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch, Sony Reader

New Barnes & Noble Nook one-ups Kindle with touch-sensitive e-ink display

The $99 Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch, complete with a touchscreen.

What it does:
Lets you shop for and read books, newspapers, and magazines

Weighs about:
5-8 ounces

Feels like:
A thin, very light paperback book

Features to look for:
“Electronic paper” display that doesn’t need a backlight; Wi-Fi and/or 3G wireless support; touch-sensitive screen (on pricier models)

Number of apps:
A few dozen games, most of which are pretty basic

How much:
$79 to $150

What’s great about them:
Very cheap; amazing electronic-paper display lets you read outdoors, even under direct sunlight; battery life is measured in weeks rather than hours; very light and easy to hold; capable of storing thousands of books; latest Kindle and Nook models boast touchscreens

What’s not so great about them:
Sluggish, black-and-white display is far too slow for video; magazines and newspapers are delivered in plain-text format; save for an “experimental” web browser on the Kindle, no real email or productivity apps; non-illuminated display means you’ll need a light source to read in the dark

Perfect for:
Bookworms who love curling up for several uninterrupted hours of reading, free from distractions like email, video, or web surfing; vacationers who don’t want to worry about charing their gadgets or who’d rather not lug paper books around; sunbathers who want to read by the pool

Still not sure what kind of tablet is right for you? Post your questions below!

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